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Boom Boom: Hooker still rockin' out

Don't Look Back
Don't Look Back
By John Lee Hooker

Pointblank / Virgin Records: 1997

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This review first appeared in the April 12, 1997 edition of the American Reporter.

John Lee Hooker's half-century career has been marked by a pattern of widely spaced hits that punctuate long periods of less-visible productivity. It's a pattern that was only broken in 1989, when he was already well into his 70s, when rock star Bonnie Raitt recorded an album with him ("The Healer") that propelled him back into the public's consciousness.

He's recorded a handful of other major-label albums since then, each featuring a series of rock stars ironically needed to guarantee the blues legend airplay on the radio – ironic because artists such as Van Morrison, Carlos Santana and Los Lobos were each influenced in their formative years by Hooker's groundbreaking electric boogie that early on bridged any gaps between blues and rock.

Hooker's remarkable late-in-life success story continues with "Don't Look Back," featuring Morrison, Los Lobos and fellow blues-veteran-turned-elderly-rock-star Charles Brown. Now in his 80s, Hooker swings just as hard and writes songs just as fresh as he did 50 years ago. In fact, it's hard to think of a popular musician who's aged as well and as creatively as Hooker.

Actually, it's pretty hard to think of any other musician at this stage of their career who would take the kinds of musical chances that Hooker takes here (Mel Torme, perhaps, who went pretty far out when recording with Was Not Was a few years back). While Charles Brown is of Hooker's chronological generation, stylistically they're poles apart – Brown is of the Nat King Cole after-hours school of blues. But they click together – boy do they click, on almost half the songs here (five of 11).

Hooker and Brown achieved a very obvious musical empathy on this recording; they seem to sense what the other will do, and play off each other with respect and gentle humor. Brown lays down sage advice on piano behind Hooker's worldly vocals, while Brown's longtime guitarist, Danny Caron, adds sweet phrases behind both with that fat-sounding hollow body guitar of his. Ah, if only Brown had sung at least one duet with Hooker.

And it would have been interesting if Hooker had done more with Los Lobos than just the one (opening) song, "Dimples." The song, written by Hooker, starts right off with the patented and rocking twin guitar leads of David Hidalgo and Cesar Rojas – with Juke Logan's harmonica pushing the whole band, and Hooker's shouted asides urging them on ever harder. Hooker and band get right into that hypnotic boogie trance of Hooker's; it's as good a track as any he's ever recorded.

However, Hooker seems out of place and uncomfortable on the Morrison composition, "The Healing Game." He provides the repetitive antiphon to Morrison's lead vocals, and seems to be doing no more than just trying to keep up, with neither passion nor creativity. In fact, he alters his normal vocal style to mimic Morrison – and it just doesn't work.

The band on "The Healing Game," basically Brown's band (Caron, bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Kevin Hayes) with Jim Pugh replacing Brown himself, also backs Morrison and Hooker on three other songs. A slowed-down, jazzy cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" works best of the bunch with that lineup.

What "Don't Look Back" as a whole shows is that Hooker is still on top of his game. It's a solid album, with strong songs given star treatment.